It’s no surprise that Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel was in Cedar Rapids on Sunday for the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame Celebration. It was a major event in the 2020 presidential campaign—19 candidates seeking the Democratic nomination made speeches and schmoozed with party activists from across the state. Enthusiastic supporters of the candidates showed up in record numbers, lining both sides of 1st Avenue in front of the Hilton Doubletree, chanting and cheering like college freshmen at a pep rally.
But when Weigel checked to see how local TV news was covering a local story of national importance, he saw KGAN (CBS 2) minimizing coverage of the biggest event in town in order to give air time to a discredited conspiracy theory the Trump administration has been promoting.
Unfortunately, that’s no surprise either.
The Sinclair must-Run continues with Peter Schweizer talking about Hunter Biden.
19 Dem candidates in Cedar Rapids today and it got roughly 1/7 as much local TV time as this must-run content pic.twitter.com/0ZZY8ujIgE
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) June 10, 2019
KGAN (CBS 2) and KXFA (Fox 28) share a news department, and that department shares plenty of pro-Trump content with their viewers. Neither station has a choice in the matter. Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which owns KGAN and operates KXFA, requires its stations to carry pro-Trump segments as part of their news broadcasts. The segments, which closely echo White House talking points, are called “must runs” by Sinclair’s management.
In this case, the must-run was an interview with conservative writer Peter Schweitzer, who famously promoted a baseless conspiracy theory during the 2016 election about Hillary Clinton secretly helping Russia acquire uranium from the United States. This election season, Schweitzer is back with unsupported claims that as vice president, Joe Biden pressured the government of Ukraine to help his son Hunter with potential legal problems over a business deal.
The New York Times published a story at the beginning of May uncritically repeating the allegations against Biden (in 2015, the Times uncritically published excerpts from Schweitzer’s Clinton conspiracy book). A week after the Times story, Bloomberg published a story investigating the claims that found no evidence to support Schweitzer’s claim and featured statements from Ukrainian officials who unambiguously reject the idea that Biden intervened on his son’s behalf.
But that lack of evidence hasn’t stopped right-wing blogs and conservative media organizations like Sinclair from promoting the conspiracy theory.
Sinclair is owned by politically conservative members of its founder Julian Sinclair Smith’s family, and the company is the largest owner of local television stations in America. It owns 173 stations across the country, including KTVO in Ottumwa and KMEG in Sioux City, and operates another 20 stations.
All those stations are required to carry pro-Trump segments as news, and Sinclair issues scripts for its news anchors to follow when introducing segments. In March, it required news anchors, including KGAN’s and KXFA’s Jeneé Ryan and Mitch Fick, to appear in a scripted promotional segment, in which all the anchors read from the same script and denounced other networks for reporting “fake news.”
CNN obtained a memo Sinclair executives sent to stations along with the promo script. It stated the scripts had to be read “exactly as they are written.” It even specified how the news anchors should dress: “Talent should dress in jewel tones — however they should not look political in their dress or attire.”